Reviewlets: Around the world

As I’m behind with reviews of books read in 2012, I’m going to accelerate the process and present here briefly 5 books!
The size of the reviews has nothing to do with the value of these books: I actually enjoyed them very much.

They have 1 thing in common: I read them for my 52 countries Reading Challenge:

American Dervish

American Dervish,
by Ayad AKHTAR
Narrated by Ayad AKHTAR
Published by Hachette Audio in 2012
9:28 hours

Hayat Shah is a young American in love for the first time. His normal life of school, baseball, and video games had previously been distinguished only by his Pakistani heritage and by the frequent chill between his parents, who fight over things he is too young to understand. Then Mina arrives, and everything changes.

Mina is Hayat’s mother’s oldest friend from Pakistan. She is independent, beautiful and intelligent, and arrives on the Shah’s doorstep when her disastrous marriage in Pakistan disintegrates. Even Hayat’s skeptical father can’t deny the liveliness and happiness that accompanies Mina into their home. Her deep spirituality brings the family’s Muslim faith to life in a way that resonates with Hayat as nothing has before. Studying the Quran by Mina’s side and basking in the glow of her attention, he feels an entirely new purpose mingled with a growing infatuation for his teacher.

When Mina meets and begins dating a man, Hayat is confused by his feelings of betrayal. His growing passions, both spiritual and romantic, force him to question all that he has come to believe is true. Just as Mina finds happiness, Hayat is compelled to act — with devastating consequences for all those he loves most.

American Dervish is a brilliantly written, nuanced, and emotionally forceful look inside the interplay of religion and modern life. Ayad Akhtar was raised in the Midwest himself, and through Hayat Shah he shows readers vividly the powerful forces at work on young men and women growing up Muslim in America. This is an intimate, personal first novel that will stay with readers long after they turn the last page. [Goodreads]

***

I was impressed by the quality of this book. It sounded very close to real life, to the personal experience of the author, with very true to live characters, set in the context of  the conflict between their country and tradition of origin, Pakistan, and their everyday life in America. The author does not hesitate to address major and hot themes such as religion, and even relationship between Jewish and Muslim. The book contains a neat and warm presentation of the Islam of the heart, if I may use this expression, without anything in common with the Islam mostly presented daily through our media. If you are interested in inter cultural issues, you need to read this book.
The author himself narrates the book, and he does a fantastic job, perfect of course for the accents, including for women, conveying the tenderness of some characters, and the intransigence of others.

house of stone

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East
by Anthony Shadid
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in February 28th 2012
336 pages

In spring 2011, Anthony Shadid was one of four New York Times reporters captured in Libya, cuffed and beaten, as that country was seized by revolution. When he was freed, he went home. Not to Boston or Beirut—where he lives— or to Oklahoma City, where his Lebanese-American family had settled and where he was raised. Instead, he returned to his great-grandfather’s estate, a house that, over three years earlier, Shadid had begun to rebuild.

House of Stone is the story of a battle-scarred home and a war correspondent’s jostled spirit, and of how reconstructing the one came to fortify the other. In this poignant and resonant memoir, the author of the award-winning Night Draws Near creates a mosaic of past and present, tracing the house’s renewal alongside his family’s flight from Lebanon and resettlement in America. In the process, Shadid memorializes a lost world, documents the shifting Middle East, and provides profound insights into this volatile landscape. House of Stone is an unforgettable meditation on war, exile, rebirth, and the universal yearning for home. [Goodreads]

***

This book is excellent at evoking the tragic destiny of Lebanon, stuck within conflicts raised by its bigger and more distant neighbors. It felt depressing when I read it, because I knew the author had been killed shortly before the publication of the book, and that he did not have much time to enjoy and share with his family his ancestors’ house he renovated. The book describes with humor and honesty what seems to be common characteristics of the people. This is a must read for anyone interested in what’s going on right now in the Middle East.
It was also hard for me, being French: I remember in the early eighties even going to some meeting in France to help the Lebanon cause – very much supported by the French people. I stopped going to these meetings when the speeches got too violent and scary to my taste, but always kept some tender feelings towards such a small country stuck in so many conflicts beyond them.
This book has just been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Awards.

bridge of san luis rey

The Bridge of San Luis Rey
by Thornton Wilder
published in 1927
160 pages

This beautiful new edition features unpublished notes for the novel and other illuminating documentary material, all of which is included in a new Afterword by Tappan Wilder.

“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” With this celebrated sentence Thornton Wilder begins The Bridge of San Luis Rey, one of the towering achievements in American fiction and a novel read throughout the world.

By chance, a monk witnesses the tragedy. Brother Juniper then embarks on a quest to prove that it was divine intervention rather than chance that led to the deaths of those who perished in the tragedy. His search leads to his own death — and to the author’s timeless investigation into the nature of love and the meaning of the human condition. This new edition of Wilder’s 1928 Pulitzer Prize winning novel contains a new foreword by Russell Banks. [Goodreads]

***

A bridge. Five people. A collapse. 5 deaths.  Why did these people happen to be on that bridge, at the specific time of the collapse, and died? Did they deserve it? Do they have anything in common? That’s what Brother Juniper tries to figure out, in this very nice and deep short novel. The characters actually have one thing in common: they all knew and interacted with Camila Perichole.
For me, this novel is ultimately about various faces of love, about disinterested love as the only meaning in the world.

Here are some passages I particularly liked:

Either we live by accident and die by accident, or we live by plan and die by plan.
p.6

Some say that to the gods
we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day,
and some say, on the contrary,
that the very sparrows do not lose a feather
that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.
p. 9

He thought he saw in the same accident
the wicked visited by destruction
and the good called early to Heaven…
p.139

There is a land of the living and a land of the dead
and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.
p.148  – last words of the book

Beyond the sky and the earth

Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan
by Jamie Zeppa
published in 2000
320 pages

At age 22 Jamie Zeppa, a Canadian who had never been outside of North America, said goodbye to her fiancé and her plans for graduate school and moved to Bhutan, a remote Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas.
Beyond the Sky and the Earth is an autobiographical work that details her experiences and transformations after spending three years in Bhutan. It is as much a book about Zeppa’s day-to-day life in Bhutan as it is about the personal awakenings and realizations that she had while living there.
Visitors to Bhutan, an increasingly hot tourist destination, are still few and far between, largely because of tight government restrictions on entry, visa requirements, and a law requiring tourists to spend at least $200 a day there. There aren’t many books on Bhutan, and even fewer first-hand accounts of life there. Beyond the Sky and the Earth stands out as both an informative introduction to the people and culture of Bhutan and as a beautiful piece of travel literature set against the backdrop of one of the most remote and unspoiled places on earth.
Zeppa recounts her experiences living abroad, such as learning to live without electricity and carrying on a forbidden affair with one of her students, in such a compelling way that even someone who has never left home will become entranced by her story and captivated by her unique experiences.
Naturally, Zeppa experienced culture shock when she arrived in Bhutan. The hardships she encountered seemed insurmountable, and at first she thought she couldn’t bear it and fantasized about returning to Canada. She had to learn a new language in order to communicate with her students, she had to learn to live on her own, and she had to learn to deal with homesickness. Perhaps her biggest challenge was learning how to reconcile her growing love for Bhutan with her nostalgia for her life in Canada, her family, and her fiancé. But after living among Bhutan’s Himalayan peaks, lush valleys, colorful villages, and friendly people, and after gaining an appreciation for life in a place frozen in time, Zeppa realizes that she feels at home in Bhutan and wants to stay.
Although to Zeppa Bhutan is a magical land, she cautions herself and the reader not to deem it “the last Shangri-La,” as is often done by the lucky travelers who make their way through the red tape required for entry into the kingdom. Bhutan is not without its problems: it is an underdeveloped country plagued by the problems that affect many places cut off from modernity. There is infant mortality, illness, and poverty. There are also domestic and international tensions that stem from the government’s stringent regulations intended to preserve the national culture. Among them are the prohibition of foreign television and a requirement that people wear the national dress, a kira for women and a gho for men.
Few of us will ever get to see the place that was Zeppa’s home. But her narrative is so clear and insightful that you easily feel as though you are sharing this portion of her life with her. Even if you haven’t had the experience of living abroad, or if the prospect of a trip to the furthest reaches of Asia is not in your cards, Zeppa’s book is a worthy read on many levels.
From her powerful use of language to describe the superb beauty of Bhutan’s landscape to her passionate description of her spellbinding relationship with her future husband, Beyond the Sky and the Earth draws readers in and takes them on her rocky ride to self-realization.
When trying to explain to a friend what she finds appealing about Bhutan, Zeppa writes: “It takes a long time to find the true words, to put them in order, to tell the whole story. It is not just this or that, the mountains, the people, it is me and the way I can be here, the freedom to walk unafraid into the great dark night. It is a hundred thousand things and I could never trace or tell all the connections and reflections, the shadows and echoes and secret relations between them.”
But, in fact, Zeppa does tell the reader about these connections and reflections in a lyrical way. After reading the book, you will have a deep understanding, appreciation, and respect for Zeppa’s strength of character and for the wonders of Bhutan.
Beyond the Sky and the Earth is a delight to read in every way. Zeppa’s beautiful prose, peppered alternately with funny observations and profound soul-searching, is a truly special and unique work that will leave you craving an adventure of your own. [Goodreads]

***

This is a fabulous synopsis, what else can I add? Except that I really enjoyed how the author presented her inner evolution at the contact of these people, especially the children, and of this beautiful country – I’m talking landscape here; even if it meant walking 5 hours through forests and mountains to be able to visit a friend. It’s remarkable that from first wanted to leave right away and hating the conditions: fleas, cold, poverty, no comfort, she ended up staying longer than planned and even marrying a Bhutanese. This was for me the chance of discovering a country I had not much heard about.

Quote:
“Let Jacques Derrida come here, I think. Let him stay up half the night scratching flea bites and then deconstruct the kerosene stove before breakfast.”
p.101

the far traveler

The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman
by Nancy Marie Brown
published in 2007
306 pages

Five hundred years before Columbus, a Viking woman named Gudrid sailed off the edge of the known world. She landed in the New World and lived there for three years, giving birth to a baby before sailing home. Or so the Icelandic sagas say. Even after archaeologists found a Viking longhouse in Newfoundland, no one believed that the details of Gudrid’s story were true. Then, in 2001, a team of scientists discovered what may have been this pioneering woman’s last house, buried under a hay field in Iceland, just where the sagas suggested it could be. Joining scientists experimenting with cutting-edge technology and the latest archaeological techniques, and tracing Gudrid’s steps on land and in the sagas, Nancy Marie Brown reconstructs a life that spanned—and expanded—the bounds of the then-known world. She also sheds new light on the society that gave rise to a woman even more extraordinary than legend has painted her and illuminates the reasons for its collapse. [Goodreads]

***

And from Bhutan, I went to Iceland! I knew about the first Vikings on the American continent, but not about Gudrid. This was a fascinating study, touching about archeology, and all kinds of sciences allowing us to figure out who lived where when. It showed a very fierce and powerful woman, her trips and what her daily life could have been.
If you prefer a historical subject on the topic, focused on Gudrid, I have just heard about The Sea Road, by Margaret Elphinstone.

HAVE YOU READ ANY OF THESE BOOKS ?
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(2012) #17 review: Death of Kings

Death of Kings

(Saxon Stories #6)

by

Bernard CORNWELL

320 pages

Published by Harper in January 2012

I read this book for the following challenges:

      

MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK

I discovered Bernard Cornwell in May 2011, and read the first book of this series. Since then, I have devoured each following book, and was looking forward to the latest one – alas it seems only 1 more will be added to this series, BUT Cornwell has  written many other interesting series, so this is bearable!!

Like the previous books of this series, you see Uhtred fighting both with his body and mind between his allegiance to king Alfred, and his love for his Danish ancestors and friends. This is getting even more intense in this volume, as Alfred dies, and no one really knows what’s going to happen to the continent: will it be torn apart by local leaders with conflicting interests, or will it be finally totally overwhelmed by a major Danish invasion benefiting from the confused situation after the death of Alfred?

I really like the way Uhtred is portrayed with his inner conflict. And am looking forward to have him finally reach home, maybe, in the volume to come.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT

As the ninth century wanes, England appears about to be plunged into chaos once more. For the Viking-raised but Saxon-born warrior, Uhtred, whose life seems to shadow the making of England, this presents him with difficult choices.

King Alfred is dying and his passing threatens the island of Britain to renewed warfare. Alfred wants his son, Edward, to succeed him but there are other Saxon claimants to the throne as well as ambitious pagan Vikings to the north.

Uhtred‘s loyalty – and his vows – were to Alfred, not to his son, and despite his long years of service to Alfred, he is still not committed to the Saxon cause. His own desire is to reclaim his long lost lands and castle to the north. But the challenge to him, as the king’s warrior, is that he knows that he will either be the means of making Alfred’s dream of a united and Christian England come to pass or be responsible for condemning it to oblivion. [Goodreads]

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cornwell was born in London in 1944. His father was a Canadian airman, and his mother was English, a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. He was adopted and brought up in Essex by the Wiggins family, who were members of the Peculiar People, a strict Protestant sect who banned frivolity of all kinds and even medicine. After he left them, he changed his name to his mother’s maiden name, Cornwell.
Cornwell was sent away to Monkton Combe School, attended the University of London, and after graduating, worked as a teacher. He attempted to enlist in the British armed services at least three times, but was rejected on the grounds of myopia.
He then joined BBC’s Nationwide and was promoted to become head of current affairs at BBC Northern Ireland. He then joined Thames Television as editor of Thames News. He relocated to the United States in 1980 after marrying an American. Unable to get a Green Card, he started writing novels, as this did not require a work permit.
As a child, Cornwell loved the novels of C.S. Forester, chronicling the adventures of fictional British naval officer Horatio Hornblower during the Napoleonic Wars, and was surprised to find that there were no such novels following Lord Wellington’s campaign on land. Motivated by the need to support himself in the U.S. through writing, Cornwell decided to write such a series. He named his chief protagonist Richard Sharpe, a rifleman involved in most major battles of the Peninsular War.

Cornwell wanted to start the series with the Siege of Badajoz but decided instead to start with a couple of “warm-up” novels. These were Sharpe’s Eagle and Sharpe’s Gold, both published in 1981. Sharpe’s Eagle was picked up by a publisher, and Cornwell got a three-book deal. He went on to tell the story of Badajoz in his third Sharpe novel Sharpe’s Company published in 1982.
Cornwell and wife Judy co-wrote a series of novels, published under the pseudonym “Susannah Kells”. These were A Crowning Mercy, published in 1983, Fallen Angels in 1984, and Coat of Arms (aka The Aristocrats) in 1986. (Cornwell’s strict Protestant upbringing informed the background of A Crowning Mercy, which took place during the English Civil War.) He also published Redcoat, an American Revolutionary War novel set in Philadelphia during its 1777 occupation by the British, in 1987.
After publishing 8 books in his ongoing Sharpe series, Cornwell was approached by a production company interested in adapting them for television. The producers asked him to write a prequel to give them a starting point to the series. They also requested that the story feature a large role for Spanish characters to secure co-funding from Spain. The result was Sharpe’s Rifles, published in 1987 and a series of Sharpe television films staring Sean Bean.
A series of contemporary thrillers with sailing as a background and common themes followed: Wildtrack published in 1988, Sea Lord (aka Killer’s Wake) in 1989, Crackdown in 1990, Stormchild in 1991, and a political thriller called Scoundrel in 1992.
In June 2006, Cornwell was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s 80th Birthday Honours List.
Cornwell’s latest work is titled Azincourt and was released in the UK in October 2008. The protagonist is an archer who participates in the Battle of Agincourt, another devastating defeat suffered by the French in the Hundred Years War. However Cornwell has stated that it will not be about Thomas of Hookton from The Grail Quest or any of his relatives. [Goodreads]

To know more about Bernard Cornwell and his work, there’s an excellent article on wikipedia, and great interviews and book trailers on his own website.

AVAILABLE EXCERPT

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My review #46: The Burning Land

The Burning Land

(Saxon Chronicles #5)

by

Bernard CORNWELL

336 pages

MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK

Every good thing has an end… I just finished the 5th volume of the Saxon Chronicles, and will have to wait until the 6th is published!
I really enjoyed a lot the whole series, even though some war details were sometimes a bit too bloody. But the characters are fantastically described, especially the hero Uhtred. His inner wrestling between his love for the Danes, who raised him, and Alfred, king of Wessex, the last area not yet completely dominated by the Danes, is almost as violent as the blows he gives with is fierce sword.

Interestingly, though Alfred descendants managed to create a real England, free from the Danish domination, England and the English language are still full witness of the powerful presence of the Dnes back then; just think about the days of the week, Thursday being the most obvious, in honor of the god Thor. Alfred did try to rename the days of the week on the basis of his strong Christian faith, but it never took. And of course not mentioning so many place names. I enjoyed this cultural aspect I was remiinded in this book.

The author does a great job I believe describing the religious context of the time, with the mix of paganism, Christianity, the common criticisms against too rich and immoral clerics. Some readers have expressed their shocking reaction, but it is alas historically proven that many clerics of the times were very far from being saints.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT

The latest in the bestselling Alfred series from number one historical novelist, Bernard Cornwell. In the last years of the ninth century, King Alfred of Wessex is in failing health, and his heir is an untested youth. The Danes, who have failed so many times to conquer Wessex, smell opportunity! First comes Harald Bloodhair, a savage warrior leading a Viking horde, who is encouraged to cruelty by his woman, Skade. But Alfred still has the services of Uhtred, his unwilling warlord, who leads Harald into a trap and, at Farnham in Surrey, inflicts one of the greatest defeats the Vikings were ever to suffer. This novel, the fifth in the magnificent series of England’s history tells of the final assaults on Alfred’s Wessex, that Wessex survived to become England is because men like Uhtred defeated an enemy feared throughout Christendom. [Goodreads]

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cornwell was born in London in 1944. His father was a Canadian airman, and his mother was English, a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. He was adopted and brought up in Essex by the Wiggins family, who were members of the Peculiar People, a strict Protestant sect who banned frivolity of all kinds and even medicine. After he left them, he changed his name to his mother’s maiden name, Cornwell.

Cornwell was sent away to Monkton Combe School, attended the University of London, and after graduating, worked as a teacher. He attempted to enlist in the British armed services at least three times, but was rejected on the grounds of myopia.

He then joined BBC’s Nationwide and was promoted to become head of current affairs at BBC Northern Ireland. He then joined Thames Television as editor of Thames News. He relocated to the United States in 1980 after marrying an American. Unable to get a Green Card, he started writing novels, as this did not require a work permit.

As a child, Cornwell loved the novels of C.S. Forester, chronicling the adventures of fictional British naval officer Horatio Hornblower during the Napoleonic Wars, and was surprised to find that there were no such novels following Lord Wellington’s campaign on land. Motivated by the need to support himself in the U.S. through writing, Cornwell decided to write such a series. He named his chief protagonist Richard Sharpe, a rifleman involved in most major battles of the Peninsular War.

Cornwell wanted to start the series with the Siege of Badajoz but decided instead to start with a couple of “warm-up” novels. These were Sharpe’s Eagle and Sharpe’s Gold, both published in 1981. Sharpe’s Eagle was picked up by a publisher, and Cornwell got a three-book deal. He went on to tell the story of Badajoz in his third Sharpe novel Sharpe’s Company published in 1982.

Cornwell and wife Judy co-wrote a series of novels, published under the pseudonym “Susannah Kells”. These were A Crowning Mercy, published in 1983, Fallen Angels in 1984, and Coat of Arms (aka The Aristocrats) in 1986. (Cornwell’s strict Protestant upbringing informed the background of A Crowning Mercy, which took place during the English Civil War.) He also published Redcoat, an American Revolutionary War novel set in Philadelphia during its 1777 occupation by the British, in 1987.

After publishing 8 books in his ongoing Sharpe series, Cornwell was approached by a production company interested in adapting them for television. The producers asked him to write a prequel to give them a starting point to the series. They also requested that the story feature a large role for Spanish characters to secure co-funding from Spain. The result was Sharpe’s Rifles, published in 1987 and a series of Sharpe television films staring Sean Bean.

A series of contemporary thrillers with sailing as a background and common themes followed: Wildtrack published in 1988, Sea Lord (aka Killer’s Wake) in 1989, Crackdown in 1990, Stormchild in 1991, and a political thriller called Scoundrel in 1992.

In June 2006, Cornwell was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s 80th Birthday Honours List.

Cornwell’s latest work is titled Azincourt and was released in the UK in October 2008. The protagonist is an archer who participates in the Battle of Agincourt, another devastating defeat suffered by the French in the Hundred Years War. However Cornwell has stated that it will not be about Thomas of Hookton from The Grail Quest or any of his relatives. [Goodreads].

To know more about Bernard Cornwell and his work, there’s an excellent article on wikipedia, and great interviews and book trailers on his own website.

REVIEWS BY OTHERS

“Cornwell, a master of martial fiction, makes history come alive with his rousing battlefield scenes.” (Margaret Flanagan, Booklist )

“Cornwell (Agincourt) has been described as a master of historical fiction, but that may be an understatement. Cornwell makes his subject material come alive. Better, his major protagonist is totally believable and human.” (Robert Conroy, Library Journal )

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